Members of the Church of Ireland (Anglican) and Roman Catholic Churches from the south-east of Ireland will take part in an ecumenical pilgrimage to Echternach for this year’s Whit Tuesday ceremonies and procession.
The pilgrimage will be led jointly by the Right Rev’d Michael Burrows, Church of Ireland Bishop of Cashel, Ferns and Ossory, and the Most Rev’d Denis Nulty, Roman Catholic Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin. Around forty participants will travel from the south-east of Ireland, of which some fifteen will be Anglicans and 25 will be Catholics.
There is a historical link between that part of Ireland and St Willibrord, the patron saint of Luxembourg and founder of Echternach Abbey. Willibrord was born in 658 AD in Northumberland, in the North-East of England. His father had been converted to Christianity. That part of England, as well as much of southern Scotland, had recently been Christianised by Irish missionaries. During the 6th and 7th Centuries Ireland experienced a period of exceptional missionary zeal. The island had been converted peaceably to Christianity by St Patrick and his followers in the 5th Century.
The absence of martyrs for Christ was a source of shame for many ardent Irish Christians. Some sought to expunge this ignominy through “white martyrdom”, exiling themselves on remote islands in the Atlantic or on near-inaccessible mountains. Others sacrificed themselves by leaving their homeland to serve Christ as missionaries to the non-Christian parts of Europe. These included such notable figures as St Colmcille (521-597 – Iona), St Columbanus (543-615 – Luxeuil and Bobbio), St Gall (551-615 – St Gallen) and St Cillian (640-689 – Würzburg).
The young Willibrord joined a Northumbrian monastery founded by Irish monks while in his teens. Between the ages of 20 and 32 he studied in Ireland in a place called Rathmelsigi. This is generally taken to be the monastery of Rathmelsh, in Co. Carlow (though some claim that it refers to Mellifont in Co. Louth). Having completed his studies and been ordained priest, Willibrord returned to Northumberland. He then spent a short time in Iona before going with 11 Irish and English companions to the land of the Frisians (the Netherlands). In 695 he was consecrated bishop by Pope Sergius I. His mission to the Frisians was largely successful and he was responsible for building the first cathedral in Utrecht.
He moved on to what is now Luxembourg and continued his work of conversion in the country around the rivers Sûre and Moselle. At first he worked with Irmina of Oeren, widow of the local ruler, herself a Christian. It is said that through Willibrord’s help and prayers the religious house that Irmina had established near Trier was protected from a devastating plague. In gratitude, Willibrord was granted land in Echternach on which he founded the abbey and continued his work of conversion. Willibrord died in 739 and is buried in Echternach Abbey.
The group from Ireland will arrive in Luxembourg on Sunday 4 June in the early evening. The Roman Catholics in the group will have had mass in a church in Trier at which the Anglicans will be present but not take communion. It being Whit Sunday, a major church festival, Bishop Burrows intends to hold a short service of Holy Communion at 19:30 in the Sofitel i Luxembourg-Kirchberg for the Church of Ireland members, to which members of the congregation of the Anglican Church in Luxembourg are welcome to join for this Eucharist and meet the group afterwards.
The organisation of the Ecumenical Pilgrimage to Echternach is headed by Mr Dermot Mulligan, Curator of the Carlow Museum.